It would be difficult to write about the story of Jim Jones and the 1978 mass murder-suicide (more than 900 dead) without sensationalizing the story. But Jeff Guinn succeeds admirably in the authoritative The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple (Simon Schuster, 2017), taking a thorough and objective but still horrifying look at how this small-town boy turned into a monster.
For those who have followed this story for years, there isn’t much in terms of earth-shattering revelations. But if Guinn is good at anything, it’s his ability to fully document detail upon detail of the wayward preacher’s complete life. By collecting news accounts, studying documents and interviewing those who knew Jones and his associates, Guinn paints a picture of a man who starts out normal enough (even if growing up in a dysfunctional home) but eventually turns into a paranoid, egotistical sociopath. Despite it all, Guinn still manages to find a shred of humanity in Jones: At least at the beginning, and likely through most of his career, Jones had a genuine interest in lifting the lives of the downtrodden, and he was able to relate personally to blacks and the poor far more effectively most other whites. In the end, however, whatever good qualities he had took a back seat to his paranoia and need to protect a fragile ego.
There are no easy answers here about how this tragedy could come to be. In fact there isn’t much in terms of answers at all. And maybe there are few to be had. That’s part of what makes this authoritative book both riveting and depressing.
FBI photo of Jim Jones (left) in Jonestown. Photo courtesy the Jonestown collection managed by Laura Johnston Kohl.